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*Igby Goes Down (R)
United Artists

Igby Goes Down has been likened to J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, but though this dark comedy succeeds in cathartic hilarity, such a lofty comparison proves no more than PR-induced hyperbole. Kieran Culkin -- of the Macaulay Culkins -- portrays the corrosive Igby Slocumb. Unlike Salinger's enduring antihero, however, Igby has long since dispensed with the bulk of his innocence and though he falls, it's not from the innocent and idealistic perch that marked Holden's road from Pencey Prep.

Welcome to another tale of bourgeois adolescent epiphany achieved through drugs, sex and parental euthanasia. Igby learns that even on the sunny side of a trust fund, the world can still be one cold mutha. Speaking of which, Susan Sarandon has way too much fun mocking the ruling class to be viable as Igby's matriarchal oppressor. She's a joy to watch, but hardly cruel enough to stoke the fires of her youngest son. Ryan Phillippe, however, delights as Oliver, Igby's oleaginous big brother turned de facto parent, whose seething restraint provides the necessary backdrop for Igby's ne'er-do-well hjinks.

Igby plays the family chicken home to roost after successive boarding-school expulsions. Igby's troubles stem from a lifetime of rage at his mother who, instead of dealing with her schizophrenic husband (Bill Pullman), humiliates him as dinnertime sport before consigning him to a mental hospital.

But despite his brother's claim that even Ghandi would've beaten the shit out of him, Igby is exceedingly likable and far too sophisticated for any 15-year-old in the MTV epoch. His verbal dexterity enables him to bulldoze bourgeois pretenses with allusions to Greek tragedy, Marxist cant and more witty comebacks than an East Village drag show. We instinctively root for Igby as a boarding-school refugee in the same way we side with convicts in a prison film. But because of his suave cynicism, he's an ersatz child and therefore exempt from the sympathy normally awarded to the young.

When Igby decides to go AWOL from yet another boarding school, he finds asylum in the SoHo studio of his Godfather's smack-addicted mistress (Amanda Peet). It's here he encounters Russel (Jared Harris), a hilarious cross-dressing performance artist, and, more importantly, Bennington drop-out Sookie Silverstein (Claire Danes) with whom he quickly falls in love.

Sadly, Igby falls into an enduring coming-of-age trope as our boy antihero manages to win the heart of Sookie, after having been the recipient of an utterly inexplicable sympathy hump from the delicious Peet. It's here that director Burr Steers' honest attempt at coming of age is tainted by lascivious male fantasy.

Sometime during Igby's schooling -- the film's chronology is a trifle askew -- his mother shacked up with real-estate dandy D.H. Baines (Jeff Goldblum) while his brother became his field lieutenant. Igby's time in bohemia comes to an end when he's evicted from the SoHo studio, beaten by D.H., and betrayed by his brother who manages to seduce Sookie. Igby spends the rest of the film in a holding pattern for his inheritance, which hinges on his mother's pending death.

Igby's attempt at deathbed reconciliation with Mom is not nearly as tragic as we might expect. While first-time director Steers did a marvelous job with the verbal savagery and nihilism of New York's elite, he stops short of pathos. Igby is a cathartic treasure trove of cocktail party witticisms. Unfortunately, there's never a moment on par with Holden Caulfield's defense of Jane, or his closing salvo to the sleeping lads of Pencey Prep: "So long, you bastards!"

-- John Dicker

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